Comberton Players Youth – Wind in the Willows – July 2021

Comberton Players Youth was started in May 2020. Previously our young people had been involved in our annual pantomime, mostly as chorus members and smaller named parts, but COVID prompted the start of some online workshops for our young people. Our first sessions were online play readings, which provided structure and seemed to eliminate some of the awkwardness that sometimes occurs over Zoom, as everyone knew what to say and when to say it. In July 2020, we ran a summer school, producing a short film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. We rehearsed and filmed this in small groups in gardens around Comberton. The Alice stories were a great choice for subject matter, as they are essentially a series of small meetings with amazing characters, with the croquet scene being a favourite with the young people!

Our term time Zoom meetings continued into the Autumn, and in January we decided that we needed a project to give a real focus to our Zoom sessions. We started workshopping Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows story in February. At this point Elliott, one of our previous Panto leads, joined me in leading sessions. 

Each session we would look at the next part of the story, and improvise scenes between characters, mime events, and look for those ‘gaps’ in the story, where the young people could bring their own ideas and interpretations to the story. There was a definite freedom to these workshops where any idea is shared, and the young people built on other’s ideas with delight. There were lots of giggles, and an unexpected lack of inhibition that came through improvisation via zoom. The ideas that the young people had were truly original, crazy and fun, and so much better than if I had sat by myself trying to adapt this story for the stage. Through improvisation, a group of Stately And Dignified Herons, (SAD Herons for short,) appeared on the river and ended up popping up throughout our version.  When improvising Toad’s court scene, one character called Mr Toad a ‘Frog’, to which our Toad replied ‘How dare you use the F word!’ (That joke definitely made the script!)  We also developed characterful horses to pull Toad’s caravan called Princess, an ex-dressage champion, and Neigh-than, a grumpy horse with a passion for cherries. The puns devised by the children when they were being Wild Wood Weasels planning to eat Mole were fab – Guaca-Mole or Mole-Teasers anyone? 

So much content from our Zoom improvisations stuck, and ended up in our final scripts.  Once we had improvised the story, many of the children volunteered to write a part of the script. The Wind in the Willows story was split it in half, and the younger group went on to write, rehearse and perform the first half of the story and the older group the second. Each writer had an overview of what needed to happen in their scene, some notes from our improvisations, perhaps some extracts from the original book and a word count. They each had two weeks to write and return their scenes, and then we knitted it all together using extracts from the original story as well as further ideas from our improvisations. The improvisations and writing formed the bulk of our project and was all conducted online. The final script was pacey, with well-defined and consistent characters and full of humour. 

When we started rehearsing in June, we found that our work so far meant that the young people already had a really clear idea of their characters. We rehearsed during June in gardens, and at the start of July we had a performance weekend, with rehearsals from Friday to Sunday, culminating in two performances on the Sunday afternoon for families. 

Our rehearsals were a collaborative process, with everyone contributing ideas throughout. We decided to go for minimal set and props, but use a few key pieces in multiple ways. So, a pair of stools, some broomsticks, picnic plates and gingham fabric became a caravan, a boat, a car and a prison cell amongst other things! 

The final performances were a great success. The children often played multiple roles which were clearly defined. Their use of voice, posture, facial expression and movement were fantastic, to tell the story in a humorous, engaging way. The action was fast-paced and the transitions were slick. But above all else, the young people portrayed a sense of fun, they looked so relaxed on stage and the audience loved it! 

One of the priorities for this project was that every participant should have a voice within it, and this truly happened. From contributing to set, prop and costume ideas, to creating characters, jokes and scripts, to helping to stage the performance, this was a joyous example of theatrical collaboration, full of laughter and silliness! And Ratty’s wisdom rings true…

‘There is NOTHING - absolute nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about (in boats.) Simply messing!’

Rachel Nielsen  (Director and Co-Chair of Comberton Players)